Seabrook Farms has a long and colorful history, not only with South Jersey, but with America as well. They have an interesting connection to World War II and the Japanese Americans living in internment camps. Whether it was a positive or negative connection depends on who’s telling the story.
Charles F. Seabrook purchased the farm from his father in 1912. It was extremely modern for its time, utilizing overhead irrigation and gasoline-powered tractors. CF then expanded the business by building a canning and freezing facility at the farm, building new greenhouses, and applying other new improvements.
By the ‘30s, the farm was thriving thanks to its pioneering methods of quick freezing vegetables. Seabrook was a firm believer in atomization. However, in 1934, employees formed an independent union, which helped them double their 12 ½- to 15-cent pay. A second strike, deemed unsuccessful, put an end to the union; the corporation also stopped its policy of employing migratory workers, and ever since has preferred hiring local residents. The farm was in need of more labor due to the loss of employees shipped off to fight in World War II. This is where Jack Seabrook, CF’s son who was in charge of labor issues, turned to the War Relocation Authority. He requested the release of “loyal” Japanese Americans to come work on their farm. Because of their shortage of labor, they hired many minorities, and housed them in segregated villages. Around 2500 evacuees of the total 120,000 in the country traveled to the New Jersey farm to work 12-hour days, at 35-50 cents an hour, with one day off every two weeks.
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Jack recalled safeguarding their workers from the local harassment of being labeled “enemy aliens.” Quite a few of the families there would agree with Seabrook, and many remained at the farm even after the war ended. And as a result, in 1955, the farm was recognized as the largest vegetable factory in the world, according to Life magazine. However, there was a majority of employees that disagreed. They reported long hours, low pay, and awful living conditions. Some accounts claimed that the workers had been living in concrete block buildings; not much of an improvement to the relocation center barracks. They also said they had to provide their own food and cooking. Ironically though, most of the parents of the Seabrook families tell their stories without bitterness; while in contrast, their children feel much resentment for the injustice and denial of civil liberties during their time spent at Seabrook Farms.
About 15 years ago, a dedication of a cultural and educational center in the museum of Seabrook had many Japanese Americans coming back to revisit their “wartime trek” to Seabrook. The majority of those who returned had good memories of the place where they spent most of their youth. Many were grateful to have had the opportunity to come to a place where they could work without discrimination and earn a living. Most of those who were bitter towards their experience at the farm did not return to remember the past, but those who did respected the fact that they were recognized as an important part of the farms history and success.
Whether the accounts of the Seabrook family were accurate or not is up for debate, but there are past employees that continue to be thankful for the opportunity to leave the internment camps and the West Coast in order to escape the discrimination and prejudice that consumed most of our country during the time of WWII. It is, at any rate, fascinating to know that we have an influential part of history in our own backyard of South Jersey.
Photo courtesy of New Jersey Digital Highway, www.njdigitalhighway.org.
For more South Jersey History, visit our South Jersey History page.
Author: Sarah Arot
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